Gora’s final thoughts recalled

Last weekend in Tampa, Bruce Gora was posthumously honored at the annual Florida American Institute of Architects convention with the 2009 Silver Medal Award for Community Service. His wife Carolyn, two brothers, his business partner, Dan McGahey, and colleague, Ken Buschle, accepted the award on his behalf.

I sat with Bruce in his modern house in Fort Myers last November, a few weeks before he passed away Dec. 18.

We covered all subjects architectural: the good, the bad, the ugly, the expectations, the frustrations and what we could anticipate for the future.

Bruce’s eyes looked very tired, but his mind was racing and he wasn’t able to hide his enthusiasm or his frustrations about the industry. A deeply passionate man, he cared about his community on many levels.

“There was a certain simplicity about the buildings in Southwest Florida when I arrived here in 1976. The older buildings of the ’50s and ’60s were designed by talented architects greatly influenced by the Sarasota School — elegant modern designs that acknowledged the climate, an overabundance of sun and the torrential rains of the summer…Even the more recent building of the ’70s, though less about the artistic and all about function, were clean and straightforward structures, built for this place,” he said.

Not long after Bruce settled here, he set up his own practice, building medical and other office buildings. He got the reputation as an architect who exceeded the client’s expectations by creating buildings that not only functioned but were pleasant places to live or work.

Early clients, often doctors, still practice in the same buildings because they are full of natural light with floor to ceiling windows that open out to mature vegetation.

More recently, though, it hasn’t been easy to convince clients that good design pays off. “It just isn’t the priority it once was in Florida, when some of the best buildings in the world were being designed right here,” Bruce unhappily admitted.

A number of factors have influenced architecture and the public’s perception of what should be built.

Design Committees have sprung up in every community, which frustrate the natural process of design. The guidelines created by these groups were originally intended to provide a framework for limiting scale and articulating mass. Instead, booklets have been produced that contain cartooned examples of buildings  which  are interpreted as Mediterranean or mediocre old fashioned buildings. In order meet the codes, the guidelines encourage developers and clients to poorly replicate traditional designs instead of innovating new.

Historical boards, organized for the purpose of protection and preservation of old buildings now dictate new buildings look old. Bruce and I concurred, new buildings, next to old or within an historical area must be differentiated from the structures of the past.  They must be new, functional and of our time, otherwise, we are creating a fake history – a historical architecture that never existed.

As practicing architects, we both agree it is more difficult then ever to convince clients that hiring an architect is not just a necessary evil to get plans through the building department.*

Bruce spoke highly of other talented architects in the area, his contemporaries and often his professional rivals.

Again, I sensed a profound frustration as he expressed concern about the talented young architects who arrived here during the building boom. He deliberated how to keep them here to benefit our community in the future. Even in November though, the recession had taken a toll on the construction industry and he appreciated with few projects and even less of them, interesting design, they would move on.*

Bruce had no regrets about his past but remained deeply concern about the present and most importantly, he still cared, passionately, about the future.

*Submitted but not published = Gora Unplugged

Sarasota icon gone, but not forgotten – Riverview High School

Riverview High School, age 51, of Sarasota, Florida, was reduced to a pile of rubble on June 13.

Built in 1958, Riverview was the first public building in Florida designed by Paul Rudolph. The internationally respected architect, who designed several houses in Lee County – including the iconic Walker Guest House on Sanibel – was the undisputed leader of the Sarasota School of Architecture, which is south Florida’s own regionally adapted version of modern architecture of the mid-century.

Testimonies and letters from preservationists, historians, architects and concerned citizens from around the world made clear to the Sarasota School Board its historic and architectural importance. After much debate, fundraising and an international design competition to find another use, it could not be rescued.

Despite this global campaign, the school board voted last year to move forward with the demolition.

So just why is it that many modern buildings like Riverview High School – once considered daring, slick and iconic models for social change – are now forgotten, neglected, altered beyond recognition or even bulldozed?

Modern architecture is defined as a variety of building styles that share simplicity of form and a lack of ornamentation. Although the principles were conceived and adopted in the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of this building style did not catch on in the United States until after World War ll.

In Florida, the Sarasota School’s distinct approach to modern architecture considered the local climate and created a relationship with the landscape. Sunshades, large sliding doors, ventilation and jalousie windows are common features of this style, built between 1940 and the mid-1960s.

Riverview High School, one of the most progressive schools of its day, epitomized the Sarasota School’s principles.

When I toured the school in the summer of 2007, what struck me most was how effectively these buildings had been tailored to a subtropical climate.

Pioneering solutions integrated natural daylight, minimized direct sun and maximized ventilation.

The buildings were arranged in a ‘U’ shape, creating an open plaza in the center. A distinctive freestanding covered walkway of horizontal planes completed the square on the fourth side. This configuration ensured students were always protected from the sun and rain.

The two-story classroom buildings were designed with generous corridors open at both ends to ensure a constant cross breeze. Internal high-level windows in the classrooms ran the length of these corridors and on the second level; the floors once had narrow slots open to below along each side. Hot air was naturally drawn out of the classrooms and corridors, rising up and out clerestory windows in the hallway.

Before air conditioning, it worked. But the incorporation of air conditioning was the beginning of the end. Never designed to be airtight, the buildings suffered from mold. Inappropriate alterations in the last few decades followed, as well as poor maintenance. Restoration became cost prohibitive. The Rudolph buildings will be replaced with a parking lot.

Abundant examples of architecture influenced by the modern movement, and specifically the Sarasota School, survive in Southwest Florida. Should they be allowed to suffer the same fate?

These days many old buildings are saved, not necessarily because they are well-designed, but because they visually preserve history. Structures once considered modern may not look old, but are equally important. They too need to be saved for future generations to experience and appreciate.

Fortunately, a growing appreciation for the modern architecture of the past century is emerging, everywhere.

Despite its demise, Riverview High School will remain one of the most important buildings of its time and place. In life, and in demolition, let it remind us of how not to treat a modern icon.

Rest in peace, Riverview High School.

Ave Maria founder says If you build it well, they will come

Voices soften when visitors tour the Oratory on the campus of Ave Maria University. The soaring height of its interior, the intricate steel structure overhead and the abundance of natural light combine for breathtaking dramatic effect.

A simpler feature — a carved marble baptismal font at the start of the main aisle — catches the eye. Three simple stacked crosses are delicately etched on the front and back of the block of lightly veined Carrara marble.

Atypically, the crosses are located slightly left of center, an understated move that creates balance on this otherwise symmetrical solid mass of stone.

“This font is my own design,” says Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza and visionary of Ave Maria University, the Catholic university that Monaghan has created, along with the town of Ave Maria, near Immokalee.

Keen to the finer points of design, he understood that putting the crosses off-center made it more dynamic than if he placed them in the center.

Monaghan, 72, is primarily known for founding Domino’s Pizza. He sold the multimillion-dollar business in 1998 and has added to his reputation by dedicating his energy and fortune to creating a world-class Catholic school from scratch in the heat and scrub of inland Southwest Florida.

Fewer know of Monaghan’s passion for architecture, though — a passion that quickly becomes clear during a tour of the campus that features designs that he has not only supervised, but has had a hand in creating.

“My favorite times of my life have been when I am building,” Monaghan says. Of all his varied interests, architecture is his foremost passion, he adds.

 

Lengthy interest

As a child, Monaghan roamed the halls of St. Joseph Home for Children, a Catholic orphanage housed in an ornate old mansion in Jackson, Mich. Its grand spaces, huge fireplaces and opulent stone carvings fascinated him.

And a book introducing him to the innovative buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, which he read at an early age, stirred an appreciation for Wright’s organic type of architecture, which naturally evolved from the context of the site, the climate and the needs of the clients. Monaghan had never seen such expressive buildings.

“The book had three buildings: the Robie House … Fallingwater … and the Johnson Wax Tower in Wisconsin, each building so different,” he says. “Who was this architect? And so began my lifetime love for Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Years later, while out with a local girl, Monaghan mentioned his interest in architecture. In an unusual coincidence, she told him that her parents had commissioned Wright to design her family home. He convinced her to take him there.

As it turned out the neighbors too had commissioned a home by Wright — a hexagon plan house nicknamed “Snowflake,” which Monaghan later bought.

Smitten for life, it became Monaghan’s mission to absorb everything he could about Wright.

From then on, Monaghan dreamed of studying architecture at the University of Michigan, but an initial lack of money and later business responsibilities ruled it out.

 

Getting involved

So Monaghan undertook a life of learning about architecture on his own. A well-designed, unique building can provide architectural identity, and Monaghan incorporated this philosophy into his own enterprises.

The headquarters of Domino’s Pizza — Domino’s Farms in Ann Arbor Township, Mich. — was created as a self-contained office village built on 270 acres of mostly open land. It has retail amenities for employees, fitness facilities, formal gardens, a chapel and even a petting farm.

It is an architecturally significant office campus, designed by prominent architect Gunnar Birkerts. Inspired by Wright’s architectural principles, it features unique linear buildings with deep overhanging copper roofs. The buildings seem to rise from the landscape.

Art and architecture historian Vincent Scully describes it as “the ultimate example of [Wright’s] Prairie Style house type.”

Similarly, Monaghan and the developer Barron Collier Cos. agreed to make the town and the Catholic university of Ave Maria distinct. Blake Gable, who has worked with Monaghan for the past seven years, says he has encouraged good principles of town planning and well-designed buildings from the start.

“Tom is very creative; he is always pushing the envelope for others, always sketching and constantly designing,” says Gable, vice president of real estate at Barron Collier.

 

More to come

The Oratory dominates the main square of Ave Maria, serving as a visual and spiritual anchor to the town and adjacent university. As the focus of the town center, which Monaghan refers to as “Annunciation Circle,” it is the essence to creating a development unique to Southwest Florida.

But Monaghan is anxious to see it complete. Still to come: a 150-foot bell tower, a rose window, a 28-foot bronze crucifix in front of the Oratory, a stone carving of Mary on the main façade, the “Pillars of Ave Maria” — brick pillars that embrace the public space like the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — a permanent outdoor farmers’ and craft market, and an adoration chapel designed by Monaghan himself.

“The architectural success of Ave Marie is a lot less than it is going to be,” he says confidently, referring to the university as well.

His plans there are ambitious too. Drawing after drawing of projects awaiting funds fill his office: already designed are street signage, brick arches that flank the University Green, trellises covered with bougainvillea to connect the campus buildings and the Oratory, much more landscaping and lighting — much of which was envisioned by him from the start.

Most impressive are the Prairie-style garden walls intended to surround the campus: 20-foot segments of low brick walls intended to be tailored to families who patronize them, with plantings, benches, grottoes, memories and even private places for prayer.

All this time and money spent, with more to come, is important because good design matters, he says.

“My justification for those expenditures is to recruit good students and faculty. By paying attention to the campus design, you send the message that you will pay attention to their needs as well,” he explains.

Leadership, vision keys to Fort Myers riverfront plan

When I returned to Southwest Florida 22 years ago, I moved into the Miles Building on McGregor Boulevard, right downtown.

I loved that Fort Myers had such a unique center. The lure of historical buildings and a spectacular location on the Caloosahatchee River is unrivaled along on the west coast of Florida.

But in the late 1980s, the vibrancy of the past had been sucked out to the suburbs.

Still, there was so much potential. Fort Myers had all the makings of a great city: an interesting history, reasonably maintained buildings, a diverse economy. Most importantly, “time” had provided the opportunity for the city to evolve and grow without feeling artificial. Top that off with extraordinary waterfront real estate.

Then, I left for London. I returned 15 years later to find little had changed, despite major efforts over the years to bring downtown alive. I was disheartened but, on the positive side, no major disasters had occurred.

Currently, the new streetscape is helping the city break out of its dormant period — an important first step. Small improvements are cropping up everywhere. Collectively, these efforts contribute to the atmosphere that “downtown is back.”

But if Fort Myers aspires to the success of numerous cities around the country, larger objectives are necessary to achieve something more profound.

Downtown must become a destination and the riverfront location positively exploited for public use.

Chicago, though much larger, is comparable. A critical decision to reserve the lakefront for the public is the envy of other cities. Places like Detroit, which used its riverfront for manufacturing, struggle. Fort Myers remains a blank slate.

The city is making progress with Aquest Realty Advisors — brought on to create a development plan for the riverfront property.

Leading the team are local architects Parker Mudgett Smith; design firm Populous, formerly HOK Venue; and retail developer Boorn Partners.

Aquest’s objectives are to expand Harborside, construct an adjacent hotel, consider parking and incorporate mixed-use entertainment components. The five-acre area of public and private land parallels the river and is bordered by Centennial Park, Harborside and the Yacht Basin..

 

Aquest understands the challenges faced by struggling urban areas, and has experience in making public-private proposals financially viable.

So far, genuine optimism has been generated. But skepticism is understandable. Over the past 20 or so years, citizens have seen repeated investment without results.

John Shreve, lead architect from Populous, spearheading the master plan, believes that “by creating a distinct focus downtown, currently absent, people will gather, enjoy a stroll along the river, dine outside and collectively appreciate the things that give Fort Myers its unique qualities — fine historical buildings, an intimate scale, a distinctive heritage, the water, cool breezes, shadow and light, and layers of green.”

The current proposal makes the most of its location by extending City Pier, with an active boardwalk of restaurants and other attractions. This element pulls the city out into the river.

In a bold move, a major water feature cuts in at Hendry Street, all the way back to First Street — and the river finds its way into town. The rationale is two-fold: first, to create an active and vibrant water by increasing water frontage and second, as an environmental strategy to filter and clean stormwater runoff before it’s returned back into the river.

Centennial Park is expanded as a water park with walkways and a fishing pier around the mangroves — an emphasis on pedestrian access.

This scheme makes the most of the city’s great asset, the Caloosahatchee.

Parts of the new proposal feel confident and daring — these components will create the focus Shreve mentions. Other ideas are tried and tested principles of good city planning that make streets walkable, inviting and active.

This new master plan is exciting and looks achievable financially.

What we now need is leadership, vision and a cooperative spirit to make this attempt a success.

I have a thriving architectural business downtown. Selfishly, I want the city’s efforts to pay off.

For everyone else, the River District is the most precious community real estate we have. It makes sense to re-establish it as the center of our community. Not only will it visually enhance the city, but it stimulate the local economy.

The benefits of creating a safe and economically viable center for all ages to gather will be one of the most significant efforts we make for future generations.

The lure of Miami architecture

When a larger bus was ordered and there was still a waiting list, we knew we had stirred interest.

Two Saturdays ago, the American Institute of Architects organized an architectural tour of Miami. For the first time, architects were the minority.

It wasn’t a historical tour, nor was it billed as such.

Zach Smith, an energetic young member of the AIA, consciously put together a day trip focusing on modern.

Deliberately, he selected buildings that were not victims of mediocrity. They varied in style and function yet all created a similar response:

Wow.

Everyone on the bus found it a thought-provoking and unique opportunity to tour Miami while getting the inside story on some very cutting-edge, modern structures.

For those of us who practice architecture, it was a massive injection of Architecture with a capital A, i.e. the real thing.

Vince Noble, a high school teacher who joined the tour, was compelled to forward his thoughts:

“Born in Chicago, and son of a man who left books of the great 20th century modern architects strewn around, a fascination with architecture is embedded in my genetic code. It didn’t require convincing to get me on a bus bound for Miami.

I found Miami incredible. We passed buildings I loved, more often than not, the modern ones. Not surprising, as I find modern architecture more dramatic, challenging and, mostly, cool. We also saw buildings I hated. Several were simply awful.

That’s what I enjoyed about the tour: Nearly all evoke a genuine response. Love ’em, or hate ’em, they made you think and react with legitimate emotion.

Florida International University campus is a great example. The School of Business is a stunning building – trendy and dramatic. A great use of color, texture and forms create a grand simplicity, and, in the courtyard, exciting rhythmic devices and water features provide a lively but measured focus.

And, for a government building constructed within a tight budget, it communicates an abundance of commitment and vision from both the university and the architect.

A short walk away is the School of Law. I didn’t get it. To a novice, it looked like a building that couldn’t make up its mind – first it’s contemporary, and then, traditional.

The scale of the lobby eluded to the grand spaces of old courthouses, yet, it was too tall, and made me feel unwelcome – uncomfortable and small. It reminded me of the teenagers I teach everyday, who want to be something important but are not sure how.

At the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, we toured the Jorge M. Perez Architecture Center, designed by a world-renowned architect and theorist of Urbanism and advocate of traditional architecture.

Again, I didn’t get it but this time, I also wanted out. Perhaps a lack of architectural expertise gave me no tools to appreciate the Perez Center – it was lost on me. …

A long time ago, a teacher told me that if it doesn’t make you think and doesn’t make you feel, it’s not art. Seems to me that they figured out the same thing about architecture in Miami.”

So why do buildings in Miami provoke emotion, make us think, and feel … something?

There is something extraordinary there. Civic leaders, planners, developers and architects work toward the same goals. Building a concrete box and randomly applying architectural ornamentation evoking another time or place is not on the agenda.

Average is not good enough and vanilla is not allowed on the plate. New ideas are explored, technological advances thrive and, remarkably, architects are encouraged to take risks and push the envelope.

Inevitably, the result is a higher quality, well-thought-out building, judged not only by how much

money it makes but, notably, on design merit as well. If you want to sell in Miami – safe won’t suffice.

Every project needs to have an architect

Many think architects are hired only for designing museums or schools or, lately, baseball stadiums. However, an architect can help any building project be more comfortable, functional and energy-efficient.

 

But why would you hire an architect? What benefits will they bring? And, in difficult economic times, how can you justify the cost?

 

With less money available, the training, expertise and experience of a licensed architect enable an owner to plan and create smart, cost-effective solutions for every project, saving money up front and avoiding costly mistakes in the construction phase.

 

An architect’s training focuses on problem solving and the creation of ideas. Combined with a broad education in the arts, engineering and construction, architects gain an overall approach to building design, site studies, construction methods and materials, the climate, codes, zoning, contracts and budget.

 

The formal professional training is long and arduous. Depending on the university, it takes five or six years to get the professional degree(s). That’s followed by two to three years of supervised practice, before being allowed to take the rigorous nine-part national Architect Registration Examination leading to licensure.

 

That can be as much time as it takes to become a physician. So, when you are seriously ill or serious about building, isn’t a professional the first port of call?

 

At the project’s start, an architect is able to interpret a client’s needs and provide solutions that get the function, size and budget right.

 

After working with Joe Madden of Fort Myers on his downtown office, I heard him elucidate: “As a real estate attorney involved with both commercial and residential real estate projects, our clients work directly with licensed architects in developing building plans for their proposed uses.

 

“Our clients rely upon the architect from design through construction, ensuring the building is constructed to meet their needs. They find that utilizing the skills of an architect can actually save money because they are able to design space more effectively and efficiently for the specific intended use.”

 

Importantly, the architect can immediately determine: are you being realistic? That’s an answer prudent to know at the beginning.

 

A good architect will investigate the site or building, consider the climate and determine how all existing conditions will impact the design and then, present not only a design but a solution.

 

Drawings, often presented in three dimensions now, make it easier to visualize proposals – avoiding surprises. Changing a drawing or a computer model is far less expensive than a change in the field.

 

Suggesting appropriate proposals and suitable materials is only one skill. How many times has an item, originally put in to save a few dollars, had to be replaced?

 

Designing energy efficiency into a building at the outset also saves money on running costs and reduces the consumption of natural resources.

 

Studying the history of art, and architecture, not only construction, prepares an architect to incorporate balance and proportion – the key to making buildings look good. Think of some houses in some gated communities, with massive overhead garage doors hiding the front door and dominating the front of the home.

 

Architects provide more than just four walls and a roof – they create environments, incorporating daylight, views and the climate, inside and out. And, did you know a considered design is even conscious of the space between the buildings?

 

The architect will use the vision of a client to produce dynamic creative space, which serve users and make buildings efficient and comfortable.

 

It is important to remember, if it can go wrong on the building site, it will. Inevitably, it is the time when the budget will spiral out of control. Given the opportunity and with cooperation from the construction team, the architect can be the one to keep a handle on costs.

 

Their comprehensive understanding of a building produces solutions to site problems that will make the least impact on all aspects of the building – minimizing cost increases. And, if they monitor changes and substitutions, quality is rarely reduced.

 

So if the cost of hiring a professional still seems high, think of it in the long term: include the actual costs of the mortgage, and fees will average about 1-2 percent of the overall expenditure. That’s a small price for a building with fewer maintenance issues, better materials, improved quality of space and a reduced impact on the environment.

 

Further down the road, consider the resale value. Good design sells.

 

Remember what Red Adair, the American oil well firefighter understood: “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur!”

St. Cyr’s house a fitting legacy

In last month’s column, I recounted the accomplishments of Sanibel architect Joe St. Cyr and shared my impressions of a man who was my mentor and friend. Many others wrote about their respect and admiration for Joe and his appreciation of family, the community, his clients and the environment.

This past Sunday evening on the Sanibel Causeway, I joined these friends and family members not to mourn Joe’s death, but to celebrate his rich and full life.

It was the second such event I attended this past month. Sadly, another distinguished local architect, Bruce Gora, passed away on Dec. 16. Fortunately, just two weeks before, I sat with Bruce and chatted about his career and architecture in Southwest Florida. I plan to share his stories and views in a column soon.

As I stood on the causeway on Sunday, I reflected how both men had touched the lives of so many and how buildings designed by good architects mirror their lives.

Inevitably, I drew that parallel between Joe’s life and the home he and Pat, his wife of 56 years, created together on Sanibel.

A home is often a manifestation of a person or family. The St. Cyr house perfectly synchronizes a lifetime together.

As an architect, Joe promoted a comprehensive building philosophy, and integrated the same attitude into his life: as a fisherman, a volunteer fireman, a father, a pilot and a lover of nature, to name a few.

Pat is a potter by education, a sculptor by trade and a successful businesswoman.

It’s hard to talk about one without the other. And with their house, it is the same. It is difficult to distinguish who is responsible for what.

Former residents of Livonia, Mich., who visited Sanibel, the St. Cyrs made the move permanent in 1981. While in Michigan, St. Cyr Architects & Associates designed more than 100 churches, schools and office buildings. During the years I knew Joe, he designed countless buildings and private residences on the islands and the Florida mainland.

When the St. Cyrs were ready to build their home on Sanibel, they found a canal site, just yards from the San Carlos Bay. It was a sleeper site, adjacent to a main road with a bridge blocking the sun and views.

That bridge, however, crossed over a canal that provided a perfect location for Joe, who cherished the outdoors and loved to fish.

Joe suspected views of the bay awaited – once above the bridge and the trees. The story of him renting a cherry picker to ensure he got the design perfect left a huge impression on me as a young architect.

In all his designs, Joe demanded flexibility to accommodate future changes. No building better exemplifies this than the couple’s Sanibel house.

Under threat of a local building moratorium in the early 1980s, Joe quickly designed and erected a straightforward island house – double pavilions with pyramidal shaped roofs, raised up on pilings.

But Pat was not impressed. “Who do you think is going to live here?” she recalled asking him. It was nothing more than a simple dwelling, and nothing as nice as the home/workplace they designed together in Livonia.

Fortunately, Joe managed to get the bones of the design right and, over the years, the house evolved into one of the most unique on the island.

In fact, I can’t ever remember a time when some building project wasn’t under way. The addition of an office, a studio, a deck, an elevator and a bay window for a breakfast table overlooking the canal all marked a response to the St. Cyrs’ changing needs.

It is designed to be in complete harmony with nature. Outside, native vegetation shields the house from the sun and provides privacy from cars and cyclists passing by. From inside, this abundance of greenery creates the impression of living in a tree house.

As you arrive, an uncomplicated fountain bubbles to mask any noise created by cars passing by.

When the front door opens at the top of the stairs, sliding glass doors frame a view of the bay, confirming that indeed, you are on an island.

Inside, natural light floods through full height doors and open interior balconies into wonderful double-height living spaces that weave in and around, and open out to deep shaded porches.

Although modest in size, it accommodates the numerous guests who drop in for a quick visit or for dinner. It is possible to sit inside or outside, either screened from the insects or out in the sunshine.

On one level, it is a contemporary interpretation of a pragmatic Florida house: a simple shelter that provides shade, maximizes ventilation and creates a close link with nature. On another level, it is a strikingly warm and comfortable home created by Joe and Pat and reflecting the remarkable life they shared.

The interior is simply furnished with a mixture of styles and art, incorporating Pat’s own work. You sense Joe’s character and remember his infectious laugh, as his friends do.

“I will miss this dear fellow, and we were so lucky to have this nourishing spirit grace our community with his heartfelt presence. Joe St. Cyr … such a true Island Treasure,” wrote glass etching artisan Luc Century.

Joe St. Cyr enriched industry, personally influenced my career

Running his hand through his thick, prematurely white hair, he unrolled a set of drawings and explained how he changed the interior plans of his beachfront condominium to make it more open, create the illusion of space flowing inside and out, and how these modifications took advantage of the Gulf views and breezes.

He was tall, down-to-earth and most memorably, exuding confidence. I was 12, and it was the first time I had met an architect.

My family — my parents and we five children — had fortuitously rented the condo across the hall from Unit 521 the Christmas of 1971, where architect Joe St. Cyr, his wife, Pat, and young son, Joe, were among the first to own a condominium at the Sanibel Moorings.

It was the beginning of a long friendship my family had with the St. Cyrs and I, as a young person, had with the architect who became my mentor and my friend.

When I decided to pursue architecture at the University of Notre Dame, he encouraged and followed my progress. He was known for his great stories and on numerous occasions took the time to share them with me. Early on he told me that Minoru Yamasaki, internationally known architect who would later go on to design the World Trade Center, juried his final project in architecture school.

Joe’s designs made a huge impression, and Yamasaki offered him a job.

As a young architectural student, I hung on Joe’s every word. He was remarkable. He earned enormous respect for his expertise and his enthusiasm for life and work.

By the time I met Joe, he was in his early 40s and already an accomplished architect.

Born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., he set up his own practice there in 1955, only
two years after completing his master’s degrees in architecture at the University of Michigan. Over the next decade and a half, his office grew to 40 or so staffers with Joe at the helm. St. Cyr Architects & Associates designed more than 100 churches, schools and office buildings.

And during the years I knew Joe, he designed countless buildings and private residences on the Islands and the Florida mainland. Among these are The Sanibel Fire Department, Island Water Association, the Robb & Stucky Building in Bonita, Big Arts Original Building & Amphitheater, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and, near to Joe’s heart, a collection of buildings for the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife.

No matter how many people pressed him, he would never slow down. At 79, sharp as ever with a lifetime of experience under his belt, he was still taking on new projects.

But then, architecture was Joe’s life. He began working with architects at the age of 13 and was the only graduate of Fordson High School with a major in architecture.

Notably, he became the youngest registered architect in the state of Michigan.

When I would stop by the office, located below his house, he would show me the huge bump on his right finger, a pre-computer result of too many hours and years at the drawing board. He was making a point that I should be prepared for long hours, but emphasized the rewards could be enormous.

Joe believed it was necessary to holistically embrace building construction — not just how to design a building but ensure it was suitable for its environment.

Renowned architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller was visiting professor during Joe’s undergraduate years, and he instilled in his students the importance of comprehensive design. “Bucky Fuller,” as Joe fondly referred to him, “insisted on creating a totaldesign.”

That inclusive philosophy of building stayed with Joe throughout his long career.

When he finally settled on Sanibel in 1981, he had already established a reputation for designing buildings appropriate for Southwest Florida.

Joe’s commercial buildings and residences often incorporated metal roofs with deep porches, reminiscent of the early Florida Cracker buildings. Because, he would insist, “form must follow the function.” He didn’t design buildings that were transplants from Michigan, but intuitively understood a very different climate required a very different response.

He insisted I understand that hurricanes were a major factor in designing for South Florida, and took the time to explain that materials and methods of buildings must be able withstand high winds and intense rain. Buildings should be raised up, roofs securely fastened and glass openings protected with real shutters. That was 20 years before Hurricane Charley struck in 2004.

When I was living and practicing in London in the 1990s, I’d stop by Joe’s office during my annual return to Sanibel. I’d bring him photographs and publications of projects I’d recently completed, and he would pore over them.

He was encouraging but appreciated that I was now charting my own course.

When the Sanibel Elementary School was taking bids from architects for the new school, I phoned Joe from London and asked if he would like to team up. He was delighted by the prospect of working together. A week later, he called to say the additional cost of indemnity insurance made designing a school so late in his career prohibitive.

On my next visit to Sanibel, we talked about the lost opportunity of working together.

He opened a drawer and pulled out a pile of drawings — schools he had designed all over the country. Only then did I learned how influential St. Cyr Architects & Associates had been during a time when school design and teaching methods were being radically rethought.

Joe was instrumental in the integration of open plan schools that allowed for flexibility. He also experimented with mobile storage systems of varying sizes and functions.

When I returned to Southwest Florida years later, I had the opportunity to design the new high school for Canterbury School in Fort Myers. Joe took a keen interest in my design proposals and expressed approval that client and climate were considered.

He couldn’t have been more congratulatory and delighted that two short years after returning from England, I was quickly finding my feet here — and taking into account the advice he had given me over the years.

Thank you, Joe, for making a positive and lasting influence on my life and career.

Please know, you will remain in the hearts and minds of those who drive past or inhabit any one of the hundreds of buildings you designed. They remind us of your huge passion and curiosity for life, people and nature.

Joe St. Cyr died Tuesday, Nov. 25, and on that day, Southwest Florida lost a great architect and I, like many others, lost a dear friend.

A celebration of Joe’s life will be held on the Sanibel Causeway at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 4

 

 

COMMENTS FROM FRIENDS AND FAMILY ON THE JOE ST. CYR, HIS LIFE AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS

 

 

Letter from Family Friend, Fred Fielding:

Dear Pat and Joe, Jr.:
I am deeply sorry I can’t be with you and your family and friends as you pause to celebrate Joe.
We must celebrate Joe, because he enriched all of our lives, as well as the lives of many not able to be here today. People look to one’s works of a lifetime to celebrate and remember them when they no longer are with us. But in Joe’s case, we must also look to our memories and reminiscence, for there we find our real treasures from Joe – his inquisitive mind, his warm humor, his concern for others (yes, even our feline friends) and the love he gave of so freely.
Coming across the causeway last week I suddenly felt the loss and realized that I would not see Joe on this trip, something I had looked forward to on every trip to our beautiful Sanibel for more than 25 years.
But, like each of us, I do have my cherished memories of having the pleasure of being with him – at a Sanibel Moorings board meeting, a canoe trip exploring the canals that taught me the beauty of the island, many fine and fun dinners with Pat and Joe – including Thanksgiving in recent years, serious conversations and joke-filled musings.
And then there was fishing – those who have ever been fishing with Joe know what an absolute hoot it was to be “fishing” with Joe, as he spent time unsnarling lines, wiping down the boat, imitating Dizzy Gillespie, talking about politics and past catches, and yes – even fishing – and sometime even catching.
So, my dear friend Jose’- thank you for sharing and caring. You were the older brother I never had and a dear, sweet and loving friend.
‘Til we meet again, my pal, fair winds and taut lines.
Fred

 

Dr. PJ Deitschel, Clinic Director and Staff Veterinarian at CROW
“We are so happy at CROW to have our piece of Joe and he will be remembered every day”, referring to the new CROW Education Center, to be dedicated in January and the new hospital, still under construction.

 

Helene Gralnick co-founder of Chicos, and Robert Owens, long-time friend, fondly remembered the kite flying contests Joe organized at the lighthouse in the early 1980s.

 

Gus Landl – Landl Carpentry
“Joe was not an ego driven architect but incorporated others ideas and made the process fun. He remembered Joe’s fun stories about the Detroit Race track. Joe took a bunch of priests to his box – right next to Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters….”

Bruce Rogers
“We all had such enormous respect for Joe at the planning office”

 

Luc Century
“Great article you wrote about Joe St Cyr. He was amongst my favorite people as he was frank, down to earth and always focused on the positive. I always looked forward to seeing Pat and Joe around the island and considered it a honor to be a friend of his . He was a deeply caring, loving man who would encourage me to no end and always left me with a smile. I will miss this dear fellow and we were so lucky to have this nourishing spirit grace our community with his heartfelt presence. Joe St. Cyr…such a true Island treasure. “

 

Steve Greenfield – Sweetwater Plumbing Inc.
I read with great interest your recollection of Joe and his positive influence on you. Having a Plumbing business on Sanibel for the last 26 years gave me opportunity to work with Joe on a variety of projects, and appreciate his talent and kindness.
Joe’s prints, crammed with detail fitted on a single page when most other Architects would use several pages for the same information, were often a challenge to decipher. My question is whether this mind-numbing detail stemmed from great intelligence or simply the frugality of someone close to the depression. Thanks for sharing fond memories.

Victor DuPont – DuPont Builders
I read your article in Saturday’s paper referencing Joe St.Cyr . I had the pleasure of many years working with Joe building many of his projects throughout the Islands . I started on my own in the building business in 1983 when I was twenty-six years old. It wasn’t long after that Joe gave me a chance on a small remodeling job. Over the years needless to say I worked on a lot of those projects you mentioned and many we won’t mention for the privacy of those clients. I appreciate today what I never really thought about years ago, how Joe loved helping young people succeed in this business. I wasn’t the only one.
There were other builders and sub contractors. Joe was a wealth of knowledge and a pleasure to work with. As you know, things don’t always work out as drawn and Joe was always open to suggestions. Never with the attitude “I know it will work”. He was always very fair and said it like it was. I also will miss him very much, but am so fortunate to have had some of his time. Thank you for your time.

 

Creasha Weglarz, ASID – WEGLARZ design
I read your article on Joe St. Cyr. It was so touching. I always knew of him, but never met him.
I asked Greg to share a of memory of him, as he built two residences for Mr. and Mrs. Ed Berninger, which were both designed by Joe St. Cyr.
Greg described Joe as a very nice man. As an architect, Greg said “Joe was one of the first local architects to understand, and design for the effects of wind loads on architectural structures.”
“Joe St. Cyr’s plans incorporated plywood protective covers and fasteners for windows on his homes. He understood the dynamics of wind pressure changed once a window was broken — for example, the wind pressure could then lift off the roof.”
That was a great article, and so wonderful that you shared those experiences with Ft. Myers.

Vicki Ross
I read this in the paper yesterday. Great Article! You were very fortunate to have found such a great mentor at an early age. I’m sure you will miss him, as will Sanibel and his beautiful but still practical buildings.

 

Meg Rosoff
Wonderful column. I wish he could have seen it before he died…..

 

Gregory A O’Neill
Here is a picture taken October 15 2005 at the dedication of the new fire station on Sanibel. I am on the left and Joe Jr center and Joe Sr right.; Both Joes and I were volunteer firemen on Sanibel, Joe Jr less than Joe Sr and I.
Most notable I think was the Woodbridge fire behind the old 7-11. It was totally destroyed but rebuilt.
Joe Sr and I were on a 2-1/2 inch line in the rear pouring water into the second floor. We had full pressure and it was all he and I could do to hold it!.
Joe Sr was a amateur radio operator as is my son Greg Jr who nowlives in Viera, Fl. They both enjoyed the hobby and Joe would always ask me about Greg Jr.
Joe Jr studied fire safety and last I heard he was a lawyer specializing in fire matters.
It was a shock to hear of Joe’s death and he will be missed.
My wife Claire and I left Dinkins Bayou in April 2007 …

 

John Goetz, Joe’s weekly fishing partner for over 20 years
“I introduced Joe to fishing in 1987. We had met when my wife Nancy, purchased Pat St.Cyr’s Paper Store (Paper Trader).
We began attending the Sanibel Fishing Club meetings together and started a routine of going out fishing in Joe’s boat once a week, usually Sunday.
We went through three of Joe’s boats and five of his motors over a 21 year period. His last two boats were called “The Quest”.
For the past few years we have been joined by Terry Bredhal and his father in law Norm Miller.
Once a year Jack Bramm from Toronto would join us for a couple of outings. He would be in Sanibel visiting his daughter Lisa and two grandsons.
I’m sure going to miss Joe and our weekly fishing days.”

 

James Scollen – Owner Scollen Custom Stairs, Inc.
My name is Jim Scollen and I have been building custom stairs around here for over 20 years.
In the 80’s I was building a custom stair for the Dix Family and Joe happened to be the family Architect, unknown to me. The building design did not allow for a generous stairwell but an adequate one would just fit.
The carpenter contractor thought he had several capable men on his payroll already. He got surprised when they visited the roughed-in stair with him and they said “Not me boss, you gotta get someone else. Those turns are too tight for stock bending rail to make and I don’t know what else to do.”
“Hello Mr. Scollen (Don’t you just love it when the conversation starts like that?) I want to meet you on my job soon and get your ideas on a project that needs done.” “When can we meet?”
Once on site I viewed the stairwells they had just looked at a few days before and said “How much of a budget number did you allow for this labor and material item?” “No enough was my response.”
“What do we do now Mr. …….?” “Mr. Scollen will you do this if I pay you everything I have in the budget for labor and make nothing on this item? I will also allow you to sell the material and make that money with no “handling charge.” My goodness Joyce, how often does one hear that.
My answer came quickly and was a yes. I met the customer soon and materials were spec ‘ed, deposited and ordered. My actual work began several weeks later. There were two stairs and I started on the upper one first. Once finished I dug into the ground floor stair which contained the tight turn at the beginning. This stair turned 90 degrees’ Rt and then proceeded to the 2nd Fl.
Here is where Joe comes into the story. He happened by the day I was steaming the rail just outside the building to prebend the rail and stringers for glued lamination the next day. I had a jig built to quickly clamp these parts to help them remember this new shape. I had the steam pot going full force driven by a flat roofing torch and a hot box dripping condensate on the soil under the future pool apron area. Now, Joyce, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a flat roofing torch but it makes a lot of noise. The pot was boiling and I was day dreaming and did not him arrive and announce himself.
He arrived just as I was getting a decent dose of steam into the northern red oak chosen for this stair system. He hung back around a corner and savored the aroma and noise. You see, my little operation had transported him back to his childhood with his father over 40 years before. His father used to build mahogany runabouts up in Michigan somewhere when he was kid. Those boats had red oak steam bent ribs layed in after the mahogany lapstrake boards were hung on molds. The smell of steaming red oak is distinctive. His mind reeled back to those happy days as he stood just out of my eyesight and relished.
I do not know how long he hung back but he eventually walked up and introduced himself and thanked me. “For what sir.” He proceeded to explain this story I share with you now. It warmed my heart to know I had touched a nerve in another through my work. He explained he did not want it to end that day. I knew immediately his sense of right and wrong was strong and I liked him. I think he almost cried while out of sight.
Joyce this has happened a few special times during my life and each time it surprises me. After reading your article celebrating Joe’s life I also feel a certain connection to you through him. Sort of like “if he liked you I would also.”

 

Walter McKee
I was delighted to see your article about Joe St. Cyr in the News-Press this morning. He designed the Villas Wesleyan Church sanctuary in Ft. Myers while I was pastor there. I met Joe in 1984 and we completed the project in 1986. His architectural vision saw a way to blend the new that we needed with our existing buildings. He was accommodating to our financial constraints and adaptable to input from us. His knowledge of the codes for places of public assembly quickly resolved issues with permitting.
His oversight facilitated the project in other areas as well. The result was a uniquely designed building that is very functional to this day. My regret is that I did not have the opportunity to introduce him to our congregation because he was not able to attend the dedication ceremony.
I have a vivid memory of our first meeting at the property. His assessment of the situation and initial idea was an indication to me that the meeting was divinely ordained.
Thank you for bringing to light his influence for good in the community. I look forward to your follow up article.

 

Daniel Summers – BSSW Architects Naples
My Dad did a few projects on Sanibel with Joe and has fond memories of working with him.

 

Robert Coscia – SanCap One Source Reality
Thanks for the article in the News Press, Joe and I worked on a number of projects together over the years, I’m very sad to see him go. I guess it’s not good bye, it’s just see you later.

 

Lisa Bramm
I loved your heartfelt article about Joe.
Below is an e-mail I sent to my friends and family who were also a part of Joe’s life. As I said in the e-mail, it was an honor to be with Pat & Joe at Joe’s bedside during his last days and hours. We talked to him constantly, letting him know how much we loved him and what an amazing man he was.
I will also send you something my Dad wrote. My Dad has been one of Joe’s fishing buddies since 1986:
This Thanksgiving I give thanks to Joe St. Cyr who, at approximately 2:20 this afternoon, passed away peacefully.
I feel blessed to have known him for 22 years and honored to have been included in his intimate passing with my dear friend Pat, Joe’s loving wife of 56 years, and his only son Joe Jr.
In the 22 years I have known Joe, I have watched him in awe as he survived colon cancer (1989) and open heart surgery. In addition, earlier this year he endured more than 30 daily radiation treatments to (successfully) fight prostate cancer and did not miss one day’s work. Most recently he completed another round of radiation in his quest to win the battle against bone cancer, again not missing one days work. I’m sure he would have also survived the bone cancer had this unexplained bleeding in his brain not occurred.
I will close with 2 expressions Joe often used:
“God Love ya!”
“He’s a helluva guy!”

 

MY MEMORIES OF JOE ST. CYR (mailed to Pat & Joe Jr. from Jack Bramm on Nov 26, 2008)

There are friends
…and then there are fishing friends.

Fishing friends are special.
Joe was a fishing friend and special.

Here are a few fond reminiscences:

Sunday Fishing on the Quest.
This was always one of the highlights of my annual visit. On the Quest, in deference to me, he always played the latest compilation of big band and jazz tapes I had sent him.

And did you know this little-known fact? Joe did his own trombone solos accompanying the music. Somehow, using his vocal chords and lips, he would emulate the authentic sound of a jazz trombone. Cool!

I was always expected to have a fresh supply of new jokes from the big city for Joe and John on our Sunday outing. It was worth it, just to hear Joe’s infectious laugh after every punch line.

Every year when I’d see Joe, he’d tell me about a Sunday morning ritual they had on the Quest. In mid-morning he would spot an airliner, high in the sky, heading south. He would point out the plane to John Goetz and say, “See it, John? I wonder if that’s Jack on his way to Cuba?”

Other activities
One year, on one of my visits, we both thought we’d like to “take up” watercolors. Something we could do in retirement. Joe suggested we paint the old Sears Roebuck house on Tarpon Bay. We piled in the Quest, roared off, and anchored off the house and started painting. It soon became apparent that Joe was the master and I was the pupil. His watercolor sketch was perfect in every detail. Mine was a disaster in every detail. Then it dawned on me that he was painting a building. Of course…he had been designing buildings all his professional life! After that I felt better. I told him he should pursue his painting talent, and he always said he would, when he “retired”. Sure!

Our E-Mails
Although my personal visits were only once-a-year, we kept in touch in-between with e-mails. He particularly liked the U.S. political e-mails I sent him, and enjoyed passing them on to his friend Fred Fielding in Washington.

Joe and Lisa
Joe was the patriarch of Lisa’s Sanibel family. He was Lisa’s protector and Pat, you have been Lisa’s mentor from day one. Joe gave a warm and witty speech at her wedding reception which meant a lot to all of us. You have both been there to support Lisa during good times and bad. It is comforting to Lorraine and I, as parents in absentia.

I’ll miss you, old fishing friend. You were special.
Jack Bramm

 

Jeff Good – Benchmark General Contracting
I first met Joe in 1979 when I first moved to Sanibel. He was still living in Michigan and had designed his house on Anchor Drive. After getting my contractor’s license in the fall of 1979, he was my first home construction project. I was always grateful that he trusted me with the project. That was my first experience with a set of plans where the architect attempted to put all the information on one or two pages. Joe was very patient and instructive with me in those early days. I’ve always admired his work ethic and determination; he is truly a role model for me.

Buildings send out clear messages

Can architecture speak to us?

Of course they don’t talk, but it is certainly possible for a building to communicate. By effectively incorporating architectural vocabulary, a well-designed building can send out clear messages.

But what kind of messages?

Obvious examples are religious buildings. Their particular architectural vocabulary — bell towers, domes, steeply pitched roofs and steeples — have, over the centuries, become symbols of the invitation to worship.

Today, modern counterparts still use a similar vocabulary to identify their function: familiar forms and materials, the expressive use of glass and light, and height — a universal gesture toward the heavens. It’s a visual language the public recognizes, even if it’s abstract.

Governments often invest in good architecture to house a variety of needs: schools, post offices, emergency service buildings, hospitals and importantly, those structures housing legislative and administrative activities.

The best of these lawmaking buildings remind us that they stand for democracy.

Think of the classic courthouse that dominates a town square, publicly announcing the central role of democracy in a community.

As architectural tastes change, these buildings often conform to current styles of design, but the architectural characteristics remain the same. They are likely to be constructed of enduring materials, often stone or brick, speaking to us of permanence and stability.

Symmetrical designs, a legacy of ancient Greek architecture symbolizing democracy, express principles of order, balance and security. No matter the period or style, they are likely to dominate their surroundings.

Sometimes, a building can communicate the wrong message. Think of the ornate office buildings designed to imitate Italian villas. Should a place of work evoke false promises of rest and relaxation and the hope of charming courtyards filled with bougainvillea?

Generic retail centers don’t identify function, and applying random architectural styles and ornamentation does not take advantage of the opportunity to explain what’s happening inside the store.

 

Apple Inc. understands the power of branding its message in and on its stores, known as “architecture as billboard.” The consumer electronics company has
become a pioneer of building innovation and style that matches its values and provides a place to retail its cutting edge products.

Apple’s giant glass cube on Fifth Avenue in New York, the hanging glass walls at The Grove in Los Angeles and the glass stair in the London store all say high-tech, great design, hip, modern. Even at Coconut Point, Apple remained committed to this branding philosophy by applying a sleek modern entrance of aluminum and glass in a very Mediterranean-styled retail center.

 

Two new car dealerships, BMW and Mercedes, have recently opened new showrooms in Fort Myers. Clean, modern and confident architectural design reflects a commitment to manufacturing legendary, state-of–the-art automobiles.

 

Office and retail buildings that do not rely on architectural language depend on signage to communicate. The results are roads cluttered with advertisements that bombard and overload our senses: images, words and colors all competing for attention of drivers. Signs may be cheap, but simple architectural guidance can prove far more cost-effective.

 

It’s not surprising that sometimes, architecture will scream to be heard.

Remember buildings that were designed to resemble the product sold inside? These types of buildings flourished by mid-century, as business looked for ways to capture the attention of a public who began passing buildings at 35 mph. Once found all over the country, these buildings were labeled “roadside architecture.”

 

A local example is found in San Carlos. The Twistee Treat, designed like a giant ice cream cone, shouts, without words, just what can be found there.

 

Less obvious is the use of architectural language to create a memorable landmark. Who hasn’t driven past the modern office building on College Parkway with the wavy yellow roof? A simple and elegant office building serving the client’s needs, topped off with a colorful floating roof that provides shade and, a bold identity.

 

Whether you like the building or not, it makes an impression — an architectural signpost more effective than any road sign.

 

At times a building will subtly convey its function. The transformation of a neglected Art Deco apartment block on McGregor Boulevard into the headquarters of Parker Mudgett Smith Architects is an exceptional, understated renovation. It makes a huge impact on a mixed-use area that’s long been only a through route to downtown.

 

Now, it’s an attractive example of “building as billboard.” There is no sign to shout, “Architects Inside.” Instead the company name is quietly located on a low wall in front. Mint green, chosen to reflect the time period of the building, catches the eye. A planned interior night light will highlight architectural models inside: a straightforward technique that identifies the profession of the new occupants all night long.

You’d expect an architect to create a decent building, but good architects will design buildings that talk to the community.

A well-designed building is a tool that can communicate a message, a brand or market a business. And it isn’t about applying style, but the ability to be clever with architectural vocabulary.

Building methods Thai’d to coconut

I have a “Coconut Theory.”

Coconuts? Isn’t this column supposed to be about architecture? Since I returned from Thailand this summer, however, I can’t stop thinking about coconuts.

There, the coconut is integrated into every part of life. The nut or more appropriately, the seed, is found raw, frozen, cooked, juiced, shredded, roasted, oiled, milked and dried. The sweet sap from the seedpod provides delicate palm sugar. The hearts, from the tender young shoots, are tasty vegetables, and the fat and oil of the coconut have proven medicinal benefits.

The shell of the seed is made into utensils and bowls, musical instruments and furniture. The husk is used as charcoal or to stuff mattresses, and like the fronds, can be used for thatching roofs. Parts of the tree are used to make mats, rope, lumber and other building materials.
Coconut oil as bio-fuel has already been found to be a cheap and eco-friendly replacement for diesel.

Every part of the coconut is precious. The coconut plays an important role in the environment, health, food security and livelihoods of the Thai people.

By why mention the coconut in an architectural column?

 

My fixation on the coconut has led me to think about building in Southwest Florida in the recent past: the materials and the methods. A generation or two ago, our parents and grandparents arrived here, bringing with them their knowledge and experience of building from another place. Generally, they put up buildings just like back home.

 

OK, perhaps the style of the building wasn’t the same as back home. Here, it was possible to use barrel tile roofs and stucco, which reflected an ideal of living in a warm climate. Using lighter colors and furniture that resembled bamboo, it was possible to live the dream of a resort lifestyle, while ignoring the realities and opportunities of the climate. Construction methods and materials remained the same.

 

If it worked there, it was sure to work here.

Or so it was believed. Time and experience have made it apparent that the construction approach brought from other places didn’t work in this humid and wet climate where the wind and rain can blow at 130 mph and the sun’s rays can melt the asphalt on a roof.

Construction practice is beginning to respond to this place. Codes ensure we strap our buildings together to minimize the damage caused by strong winds.

And energy is becoming a critical factor. We insulate our buildings not to keep the cold out but to keep it in. But experience is teaching, as insulation increases, the ingress of heat is reduced, but so is the ability of a building to breathe, and dry out — imperative to preventing mold in a humid climate — and thereby increasing the dependency on mechanical systems, i.e. air conditioner units and de-humidifiers. New buildings must be airtight and gaps in existing buildings filled to maximize the efficiency of these mechanical systems.

 

More energy-efficient buildings come at a price. Buildings here demand good materials and good workmanship. More than ever, with the increase in energy costs and a decrease in availability, it must become the norm.

Perhaps then, with costs rising and increasing fuel and transportation prices, locally available materials make sense. Now is the time to identify possibilities here and cultivate them.

 

Southwest Florida is searching to diversify the area’s economic base and reduce dependency on real estate and tourism. Investing in the research of local building materials makes sound economic and environmental sense.

Can a coconut be used to insulate a building? The Thai people have learned to use it in a cementitious board made from coconut coir, cement and water. High insulating properties make it an energy-conscious building component. What about bamboo and soybeans, which grow prolifically in Florida?

 

With time comes a greater understanding of place and how to live with the climate, just as time and local knowledge makes the most of a valuable local commodity in Thailand. With experience, we gain insight into the best methods to build.

The coconut is a reminder of the benefit of understanding local resources and living in harmony with the place we live.